HEARING TIPS

Your Earwax: What is It Trying to Tell You?

A dog is getting earwax cleaned out of its ears while sticking its tongue out.

Is your earwax trying to tell you something about your health? Earwax is more than just the icky stuff that comes out of your ears. Cerumen, the medical name for it, has a purpose in your body. It protects the skin inside the ear canal from damage that can lead to infection. It is also a source of lubrication and helps waterproof the inside of your ear.

That’s all good stuff, but earwax also provides information about you. How it looks, the texture and smell all supply key details about what is going on inside your body. What is your earwax saying to you?

Earwax and Your Heritage

It is hard to believe but, all earwax falls into one of two categories. It is either dry, or wet and kind of sticky. How your earwax feel is a genetic trait you can use to trace your roots. According to a study in the journal Nature Genetics, it is a gene mutation that determines whether your earwax is wet or dry. Researchers investigated 33 different populations around the world and found:

  • Ninety-five percent of East Asians have the dry kind.
  • Ninety-seven percent of people from Europe or Africa have the wet, sticky kind.

The difference between these two groups boils down to one gene called ABCC11. It is the gene that manages the flow of earwax-altering molecules. At some point centuries ago, the gene changed in people in Europe and Africa as they adapted to a new surrounding. The researchers from this study hypothesized that insects lead to the mutation. The thick, wet earwax can trap insects and protect the deeper areas inside the ear canal and possibly even the brain. It is an example of the body’s natural ability to change based environmental stressors. It is a change designed to improve a species odds of survival.

Green, Wet Earwax

Green, wet earwax means one of two things:

  • You’ve been sweating.
  • You have an ear infection.

When you sweat, the water will mix with your earwax, changing the color and texture. When you have an ear infection, the earwax changes due to the body’s inflammatory response to invading organisms. Pus created by the response can mix with the earwax, and that may lead to the difference in color.

Earwax That Smells Bad

When your earwax smells terrible, pay attention because it most likely indicates a severe infection. Anaerobic bacteria, that means the organism doesn’t require oxygen to thrive, tend to emit a foul odor that can make earwax smell bad.

A bad smell can also mean an infection is causing middle ear damage. You might notice your balance is off and there is ringing or other phantom noises in the affected ear. Time to see the doctor.

In 2009, a group of Japanese scientists also linked smelly earwax to a gene associated with breast cancer. Although more studies are needed to prove this connection, it’s something you should talk to your doctor about especially if breast cancer runs in the family.

It Feels Like Your Ear is Leaking

Technically, this probably isn’t earwax, but it is easy to assume that is what is coming out. Leaky ears are an indication of disease, especially infection. Ear infections produce pus, and that might be what feels wet inside your ear. There are other possibilities, though.

Some people develop a type of skin growth inside the ear canal called a cholesteatoma. It’s similar to a cyst, but it grows inside the ear and allows stuff like earwax and other debris to build up there. When the canal fills up, the gunk can start to overflow and come out the ear. Any drainage from your ear warrants a visit to the doctor to find out what’s happening.

Your Earwax is Really Flaky

No worries, flaky earwax isn’t a sign of trouble. It is, however, a side effect of natural aging. As people get older, their body’s get a little dryer — that includes the glands that produce earwax. As a result, your ears might feel itchy. A few drops of mineral oil can ease that discomfort and soften the earwax at the same time.

What if your ears have no earwax at all? It’s rare, but it does happen. It is a condition called keratosis obturans, and it means there is a hard plug where the earwax comes out. It’s unclear why this happens, but researchers do know that the plug is made of keratin, a protein that exists in skin cells. You might feel pain in that ear and have trouble hearing. The treatment is simple, let a doctor pull the plug out. In some, the condition is chronic, and the patient requires regular medical care.

Earwax, who knew it was so complex. Take a look at yours and see if you learn anything.

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